by Tracy Edwards
The ‘Books Beyond Words’ initiative publishes a range of books with picture stimuli to which enables young adults with a learning disabilities, to engage in dialogues on a range of social and emotional issues. ‘Books Beyond Words’ also supports organisations such as libraries, schools and social services to facilitate ‘book clubs’ to address barriers to accessing discussions of a sensitive or emotional nature, such as those associated with literacy or communication difficulties. Other publications in the ‘Books Beyond Words’ book series include ‘Ann has Dementia’ and ‘Mugged’.
‘Books Beyond Words: Going to Church’ provides a series of 38 illustrations, with offer a sequential narrative about a central character seeking inclusion within his local faith community. The difficulties encountered by this character (referred to as ‘Alan’ in the accompanying notes for facilitators) are based on the highly informed insights of the book’s impressive team of authors: Baroness Shelia Hollins, a Peer in the House of Lords and Professor in the Psychiatry of Learning Disability; Katy Carpenter, a young woman living with Downs Syndrome and John Swinton, a theologian at the University of Aberdeen and leading UK researcher into the spiritual dimension of person-centred care planning.
To prompt discussion ‘Books Beyond Words: Going to Church’ includes pictures of ‘Alan’ struggling to get seated on a pew, needing to find the right words to ask somebody to move a little to one side, so that he can get past. In other pictures, a particular elderly gentleman in the congregation seems to find Alan’s behaviours annoying, particularly his enthusiastic singing of hymns. Alan appears to feel isolated and eventually speaks with his family about this; the family make a phone call to the Church’s Minister, who then organises for him to be supported during services, by a fellow worshipper with some understanding of his difficulties.
Although ‘Books Beyond Words: Going for Church’ has not primarily been written for use in the RE classroom, it offers ways for teachers of Religious Education, to scaffold spiritual reflection for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. Within our increasingly diverse school system, there is also scope for the Books Beyond Words ‘book club’ model to be adapted for Religious Education lessons, for example through facilitated small group discussions based on the illustrations. In special school settings and nurture groups in particular, this could represent a highly effective use of teaching assistants and a welcome departure from the “Velcro TA” being attached to an individual pupil and thus limiting their independence (ref. Blatchford, Russell and Webster, 2012 )
By having no text whatsoever, the use of ‘Books Beyond Words: Going to Church’ in RE classrooms also raise important questions about the role of literacy in inclusive Religious Education which has holistic goals around supporting SMSC Development. For a large proportion of pupils, reading and writing is clearly important to progression in any academic study of philosophy and/or world religion. However, there are occasions when what has been termed “conventional literacy” (ref: Lacey, 2010) can limit capacity for personal, social and spiritual growth: If a pupil if struggling over every word on a page, then they are most likely using a very different part of their brain that that which processes emotions, and therefore not in a place where they can be engaged spiritually.
To support many specifications for Entry Level RE and/or locally agreed syllabuses, ‘Books Beyond Words: Going to Church’ also includes images of a Eucharist service, private and public prayer, and of the wearing of the cross as a symbol of religious faith and identity. The use of ‘Books Beyond Words: Going to Church’ is also a resource which enables Religious Education to play its role in supporting the Education, Health and Care Plans of pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, under the new SEND Code of Practice.
Further titles in the series, covering a range of world faiths would be very welcome. The vulnerability of young people with learning disabilities, to being ‘groomed’ for religious and/or political extremism has also been widely acknowledged by a range of professional agencies, including the police. It would therefore be potentially valuable for ‘Books Beyond Words’ to include this in the range of highly sensitive issues it grapples, and for RE teaching to in turn, to use such as this, to adapt around individual priority needs and points of learning.